Just As I Thought

Elizabeth Campbell

Mrs. Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell, one of the influences in my life, has died just 5 days after her 101st birthday.
Mrs. Campbell was a member of the first elected school board here in Arlington, Virginia; she worked endlessly for desegregation of the schools. Late in life, she turned to another educational initiative, the creation of educational television and the founding of WETA here in Arlington. She realized the extent to which television exercised power over young minds and vowed to harness it.
Until just recently, Mrs. Campbell came to work every day at WETA — when I worked there in the 90s, her office was just across the hall from mine. She was a wonderful, caring woman with a wit and sense of humor, who made everyone feel welcome there… just make sure you were dressed appropriately for work!

[Read the obituary from WETA]
[View RealVideo of Mrs. Campbell’s WETA Sign-On Message]

From the Washington Post:

WETA Founder, Public Television Pioneer Campbell Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2004; 12:30 PM

Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell, 101, a former educator who founded the WETA public-broadcasting outlet and helped guide the station from humble beginnings to become one of the most prominent in the public television pantheon, died today at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington. She had a respiratory ailment.

Mrs. Campbell, an immensely revered fixture in Washington’s civic and cultural scenes, accumulated awards and honorary degrees for her stewardship of the station and her community involvement over the years. A pioneer in educational television, she remained a sprightly public figure and a symbol of ageless vigor in her later years.

Since starting in 1958, WETA grew from a single elementary-school science program made in borrowed studios to the third-largest contributor of original shows to the public broadcasting system. The Arlington-based station now has an operating budget of about $60 million and produces some of the nation’s best-known public affairs shows, such as “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and “Washington Week in Review.”

WETA also produces entertainment programs, such as “In Performance at the White House,” “The Kennedy Center Presents” and “A Capitol Fourth,” and co-produced numerous Ken Burns’ documentaries in the 1990s, including “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Her influence stretched far beyond Washington, said Newton N. Minow, the Federal Communications Commission chairman who in 1961 granted WETA its first broadcast signal. Minow said she was a key force in persuading Congress to pass early legislation that made public television, a noncommercial and educational alternative to for-profit broadcasters, accessible to a wider audience.

Mrs. Campbell, who said entering public television was her smartest decision in a varied career, had been a dean at two women’s colleges, chairwoman of the Arlington County School Board and a community activist working to promote integrated schools in the 1950s.

She saw WETA as the way to fuse her passion for teaching with television’s scope.

“Public broadcasting could touch the lives of more people in this country in a half hour than the public schools, the public libraries could in years,” she said in a 1999 WETA documentary about her life.

Mrs. Campbell spent decades working on behalf of educational causes, often alongside her husband, the late Edmund D. Campbell. A lawyer, he had successfully argued the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized the concept of apportioning state legislatures based on population, known as the one-man, one-vote ruling.

Television, she figured while on the school board in the 1950s, would be a solution to her greatest criticism of local education — its dearth of training in fine arts and music.

“The two things that are important in education are, first, information, and second, motivation,” she once said.

Television, she added, gave her children both.

From 1957 to 1971, Mrs. Campbell was president of what became the Greater Washington Educational Telecommunications Association, the operating body of WETA. Since 1971, she held the position of WETA vice president for community affairs, making her the liaison between the station and viewers.

Mrs. Campbell put in full days at WETA until recent years and never accepted a salary for her work at any time in her television career.

“My career has always been education,” she told The Washington Post. “Television is just another tool.”

Elizabeth grew up wishing to enter the clergy, but because church doctrine prohibited women clergy, she turned to teaching. She said she remained devoted to Moravian principles throughout her life.

She was a 1923 cum laude graduate of Salem College in North Carolina and in 1924 received a master’s degree in education from Teachers College at Columbia University.

She taught English at Salem before becoming dean of women in 1928 at Moravian College for Women in Pennsylvania. From 1929 to 1936, she was dean of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.

During her last year at Mary Baldwin, she married Edmund Campbell, the son of a Mary Baldwin trustee, and, in her estimation, “the sweetest looking little red-headed boy.” He was also a widower with two small children, and they moved to Arlington.

Mrs. Campbell became active in the American Association of University Women, in part to help her husband maintain social and political connections. Her husband served on the Arlington County Board of Supervisors and in 1952 lost by 322 votes a Congressional race against Republican Joel T. Broyhill. Broyhill held that seat until 1975.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Campbell had been teaching Latin at Cathedral School in Washington and co-founded with other mothers the Rock Spring Cooperative Nursery School in Arlington.

She was elected to the county school board in 1947, the first time members were not appointed by the Virginia state legislature. She served three times as chairwoman before stepping down from the school board in 1964.

As chairwoman, Mrs. Campbell’s career became further intertwined with her husband’s. She oversaw the county’s school system at a time when the political machine of Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.) was trying to resist the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board 1954 ruling outlawing segregated schools.

She argued for phased integration, starting in the first grade in the 1956 school year but the efforts stalled when state officials, in anger, made the board an appointed body.

She sought other means of changing opinion. In 1955, the Campbells helped start Arlingtonians for a Better County, a nonpartisan political coalition. They also played key roles in the Save Our Schools committee, a group of segregation supporters and opponents that lobbied to keep schools open regardless of political haggling.

They were harassed for their work against segregation.

“We had calls at night, people calling us Communists and all sort of things,” she told The Post in 1989. “I grew up where there were segregated public schools, and I’ve had a guilt complex all my life because we used to push the little Negro boys off the sidewalks on their way to their school and make them walk in the streets when we passed.”

She added: “I think that those of us who had lived in the South all of our lives, particularly in the kinds of homes that both Ed and I were brought up in, we just never expected that there would be this kind of reaction.”

During this time, she became increasingly involved in television. In 1953, she helped incorporate GWETA, a collective of area educators and cultural leaders with had a mandate to create a not-for-profit television station in the nation’s capital. She had the support of a GWETA founder and publishing magnate Willard Kiplinger and became GWETA board president in 1957.

Mrs. Campbell helped canvass school superintendents about their ideas for classroom use of television programming. The unanimous reply was to use the medium to teach science.

From those discussions came “Time for Science,” a live, half-hour show meant to augment science class curriculum. A local commercial network, WTTG, agreed to provide the airtime to the fledgling programmers (after three others turned down Mrs. Campbell) if GWETA would cover production costs.

She said those early years with fraught with some now-laughable moments. Once, the WTTG station manager asked if she would mind a bra commercial appearing during the program. She responded milk would be more appropriate for a show geared toward youngsters.

“There was almost complete ignorance” about the possibilities of educational television at the start, she told an interviewer.

Minow’s appointment in 1961 to the FCC was a turning point. Minow, who famously pronounced network television a “vast wasteland,” offered early political support for GWETA and other educational stations.

Minow said Congress had not set aside enough longer-range VHF (channels 2 to 13) bandwidth for educational service. As a result, many cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Baltimore lacked education-television outlets.

Minow said Mrs. Campbell testified before Congress and successfully lobbied for passage in 1962 of several notable laws: to make every television-set manufacturer add a tuner to receive UHF (a shorter-range frequency above channel 13) bandwidth; and to get federal funding to help build educational-television stations.

“When you dealt with her, you knew there was no nonsense, and it was going to get done,” said Minow, also a former chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service. “I saw in her the instrument to get educational television national.” WETA received its own UHF band and went on the air Oct. 2, 1961.

In those early years, all staff members had to help with grunt work, and Mrs. Campbell was known to drive to the airport and pick up tapes flown in from other stations so they could be used on air that same day.

Duke said he also recalls her years later stooping down to pick up a piece of stray paper on the grassy front of WETA headquarters. “Nothing was ever too small with her,” he said.

But she was not nettlesome in programming, he added. “Her modus operandi was to let people do their jobs,” Duke said.

He added: “In public broadcasting, there have always been people I regard as excessive visionaries. But she was always very practical and down to earth and believed in projects that could really be carried out.”

In 1962, the station held its first membership drive and two years later hired a veteran television producer, William McCarter, as its general manager. The station received its first Emmy Award in 1964 for “English — Fact and Fancy,” a humorous educational series on ordinary speech narrated by linguist James Bostain.

WETA began broadcasting on the weekends in 1966. Soon after “Washington Week in Review” debuted in 1967, the fledgling Public Broadcasting Service made the public-affairs show the first station-produced program accepted for national distribution. PBS also helped provide a stable source of income through distribution of government grants.

In the early 1970s, WETA earned plaudits for its gavel to gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer were the commentators.

The WETA board had spent years exploring the possibility of expanding to radio to form a more-complete broadcasting service. The first entry into radio came in 1970 with WETA-FM in Arlington, now part of the National Public Radio system. Over the years, WETA extended its broadcast range by buying radio stations in Hagerstown and Frederick.

As WETA’s prominence grew, so did its need for bigger space. The studio’s first offices were in Mrs. Campbell’s home, and the studio itself was in a classroom at Arlington’s Yorktown High School. In 1964, WETA moved to a converted gym at Howard University, and in 1972 the broadcasters settled in the Shirlington section of Arlington.

Mrs. Campbell’s honors include the 1981 Board of Governors Award from the D.C. chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Ralph Lowell Award in 1996 for outstanding individual contributions to public television.

Mrs. Campbell once linked her longevity to her community involvement.

“I think most people can live a long time if you have a job you want to go to and people you are close to,” she told The Post in 1998. “I’ve always had work to live for, and I’ve always had people who needed me. It is terribly important to wake up in the morning and know there are people out there to whom you make a difference.”

She was a co-founder of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, her town of residence.

Her husband died in 1995. A stepson, the Rev. Edmund Campbell Jr., an Episcoal minister, died in 1997.

Survivors include two sons, Rev. Benjamin Campbell, an Episcopal minister, of Richmond, and Donald Campbell of Arlington; a stepdaughter, Virginia Holt of Phoenix; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren Her husband died in 1995.

1 comment

  • Gene,
    I didn’t realize–or didn’t remember–that you had worked for WETA; I worked for PBS national HQ in Alexandria and for public television’s advocacy group for a total of nine years out of the past fifteen, from 1987 through 1995 and again from 1999 to 2000.

    The similarities just never end. But if you didn’t start until the 90s, it looks like this time I beat you to the punch. <grin>

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